As another anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition comes and goes, Mahant Satyendra Das is largely indifferent — ‘I am happy to just serve Ram Lalla,’ he says
The winter fog hangs low over Ayodhya. At 9 am, the alleys are still desolate. Mahant Satyendra Das, the chief priest of the makeshift temple at the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site, is relaxing at his home — a large space with six rooms, a verandah, a garden and two courtyards. The 76-year-old lives here with eight disciples and a cow.
In one of the rooms, Das sits on a plastic chair and watches a debate on Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s “Ramzaada-Haramzaada” remark on television. “Politicians use uncivilised language,” he says.
In his 22 years as chief priest, Das says he has seen both good times and bad, but none as turbulent as the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Now, as another anniversary of that day comes and goes, he is largely indifferent. Das doesn’t expect a resolution of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute in his lifetime. “The high court took 60 years, so the Supreme Court will take at least half of that,” he says.
A self-confessed news junkie, Das watches five news channels every morning and evening. At other times, he offers prayers. “Both Vedic and worldly knowledge are important,” he says.
Das wakes up at 4 am and recites bhajans for two hours. At 6 am, he turns on the radio to listen to bhajans and Ramcharitmanas. An hour and a half later, he listens to news on radio, followed by reading the newspaper and then watches news on television.
After the morning aarti, he gets into his Mahindra Scorpio and drives 3 km to his place of work — the makeshift temple of Ram Lalla.
The road to the temple complex has two checkpoints. Das drives past the first, but at the second, policemen check the car before waving it through.
Once inside the complex, there are two more vehicle checkpoints with CRPF jawans on duty. Visitors can only carry money inside the complex — even pens have to be left behind. Half a kilometre away from the makeshift temple, they have to walk through three metal-detector frames and are frisked by CRPF personnel.
Covered with a tarpaulin sheet, the temple is a small elevated platform with an idol. Devotees walk through narrow, barricade-enclosed paths to approach the temple but are not allowed inside. They can only view the idol of Lord Ram, take prasad from the priest, and offer donations. Das claims the temple gets up to 5,000 devotees a day, but at about 11 am, only a dozen devotees are lined up for darshan. The CRPF jawans kill time chatting with one another.
The temple is open to devotees between 7 am and 11 am, and from 1 pm to 5 pm. Das spends only two hours at the temple every day. “Four assistant priests perform most rites. As chief priest, I oversee the opening and closing of the temple, performance of aarti, cleaning of the idol, and preparation of food for Ram Lalla. I offer prasad in the morning and have it for lunch too,” he says.
Das makes Rs 6,800 a month, up from the Rs 100 a month that he used to earn in 1992 when he was appointed chief priest by the Faizabad district administration. “I get Rs 60,000 from the Faizabad Commissioner every month, and from that, I pay nine temple employees their salaries. I get another Rs 30,000 for Ram Navami celebrations and Rs 5,000 for Shravan jhoola mela,” he says.
At noon, Das leaves for home. On the way back, he says the “disputed structure has seen better days”. Das looked after the idols even when they were inside the Babri Masjid — before the mosque came down in 1992 — and lit a lamp there every day.
Das feels Ram Lalla is “like a person ousted from his house”. “King Ram has been made a beggar after the demolition. It was a temple, but the VHP and the BJP said it was a mosque that had been built after destroying a temple,” he says.
At this point, a TV reporter walks in for a byte on Hashim Ansari, the plaintiff in the Babri case who has said he won’t pursue the matter further. “Hashim is getting old. He wants credit for resolving the dispute while he is still alive,” he says curtly.
Das adds that he is not worried about his security. “I don’t even have a lathi, while other sadhus flaunt arms here. The CRPF offered me security but I refused. Dharma protects those who protect dharma,” he says.
At 2 pm, he retreats to a tiny room, holding a temple, two bookshelves and a bed. It is in here that Das spends most of his time.
After another round of prayers and a nap, he is ready for his “favourite” task — teaching Sanskrit grammar. His youngest student, 11-year-old Sanidhya Shukla, arrives at 4 pm. Two other students follow, and Das starts his class.
He asks, “Who are the three acharyas of Sanskrit?” When none replies, he says, “Panini, Katyayan and Patanjali.” The students repeat after him.
Born in Sant Kabir Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, Das came to Ayodhya in 1958 with his guru. He studied at the Sanskrit Vidyalaya here and served as priest at Hanuman Garhi temple in 1959-60. An MA in Sanskrit, he taught Sanskrit grammar at Tridandi Dev Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya in Ayodhya from 1976 to 2007.
He even tried his hand at politics, though without much luck. In 2007, he filed his nomination for the UP Assembly elections from Ayodhya as an Independent, but his fellow sadhus opposed him and called for his removal. “I had filed my nomination papers and all my proposers were Muslims. The sadhus then said, ‘Pujari Ram ka aur prastavak Rahim ke’. My nomination was cancelled because of lack of the signature of one proposer. I never thought of fighting an election after that,” he says.
Das says it is “tough” to manage teaching with priesthood, but that he took to it after he learnt of “an erudite mahant who taught nobody and became a Brahma Bhoot (a powerful spirit) after his death”. “I don’t want to turn into a ghost,” he says.
As it gets dark, hewinds up his class. It’s 7 pm, and Das asks his disciple to enquire if the evening aarti of Ram Lalla has been performed.
He always feels content about serving Ram Lalla, he adds. “Humne Ram Lalla ko becha nahin, kai log ne bech diya (I did not sell Ram Lalla like many others did),” he says, standing up to leave for the evening prayers.